Why Africa should expect more coups

Fola Aina
By Fola Aina

Fola Aina is a political scientist and a doctoral fellow at the African Leadership Centre, King's College London. His areas of research interest include peace and security in Africa, grand strategy, governance for development and public policy. He can be reached on Twitter via @folanski

Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei
By Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei

Non-resident Fellow at the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) West Africa His research focuses on democracy, decentralisation, elections and constitutionalism in Africa

Posted on Friday, 18 March 2022 10:59

A man holds a portrait of Lt. Col. Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba who has taken the reins of Burkina Faso, in Ouagadougou, 25 Jan 2022. (AP Photo/Sophie Garcia, File)

Military coups are nothing new to the African continent. After several years of enduring colonial rule, many African countries began their experimental transition into democracy in the 1960s.

Six decades later, most of these countries have yet to establish functioning democratic systems that deliver prosperity for their people.

In 2020 the Democracy Index classified only one country on the continent (Mauritius) as a full democracy. The rest were flawed, hybrid or authoritarian (nearly half) regimes.

Democracy and social progress have been hindered by endemic corruption, aggravated poverty, high levels of insecurity, and political instability — producing a vicious circle of heightened fragility and weakened state capacity.

Recent coups

The new wave of military coups (and attempted, and failed ones) across parts of the continent such as in Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau, and Sudan comes as a surprise to some and to others, as long overdue.

These appear to have dashed hopes of the once prevalent narrative of an ‘Africa Rising’ pushed by the commentariat. While there have been several reasons given for this new wave of coups, a more pertinent issue of concern is whether this is something temporary, or if it marks the beginning of a trend that is here to stay.

The latter appears to be the case given the growing level of distrust between citizens and governments, and the fast decline in the quality of already faltering democratic and economic systems across the continent.

As history points out, the circumstances that led to the previous waves of military coups have remained unaddressed in the years following these coups. The difference this time is that they are being reinforced by a combination of three factors, broadly categorised as internal and external factors that many have underestimated, which this essay now brings to the fore.

Disenchantment

The first is the spate of disenchantment by societies that is sweeping across the continent, directed at political leaders. The promise of democratic dividends has eluded most Africans as they find it difficult to reconcile their economic hardships with the extravagant lifestyles of the political class.

Citizens’ agency, as we argued elsewhere, has thrived in recent times, as they begin to find their voices through renewed mass protests, demanding more transparency and accountability from the state.

These internal social grievances have given further impetus to long-held distrust by society towards the state. Recent events, owing to the harsh measures imposed by states in a bid to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, has further exacerbated the cracks along these social cleavages.

For instance, these harsh measures left the most vulnerable in dire need, following market closures, unavailability of access to adequate healthcare services, and in some instances, having to witness the hoarding of palliatives by politicians meant to ease the plight of the common citizen.

The reliance by some governments on Covid-19 measures, including emergency powers, to silence opposition protest movements only temporarily suspended mass actions that are manifesting themselves now as these restrictions are being removed.

Furthermore, insecurity has been an abiding challenge for most of the states that have encountered military takeovers or mutinies. These states have been unable to fully broadcast authority across their territories for at least a decade as they compete with insurgents for control over territories. In Chad, the state is being confronted with the challenge posed by violent extremist organisations including Boko Haram and its breakaway faction, the Islamic State in the West African Province (ISWAP).

Both Mali and Burkina Faso have also found themselves struggling to contain the threat posed by the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda affiliated extremist groups. The unfortunate truth remains that these countries lack the capacity to mitigate these threats, thereby impeding their abilities to provide first for the security and safety of their people, and second basic and secondary services needed to attain prosperity.

Given that the end to these threats is not anywhere in sight, especially considering that their underlying socio-economic root causes remain prevalent and unaddressed, the situation on the ground should only be expected to deteriorate further.

Lack of strategic engagement

The second factor, which falls under the external, and which is expected to trigger more coups to come in parts of the continent, is the lack of strategic engagement with fragile states by the AU and regional organisations.

The usual approach has been to ‘condemn’, impose sanctions, and call for a return to ‘constitutional rule’ as the AU and ECOWAS did recently following the coups in Mali and Burkina Faso.

The problem with this reactionary approach is that it negates the primacy of proactive diplomacy, which is crucial to averting situations such as these, which also has the potential of leading ultimately to state collapse.

In this way, both the AU and ECOWAS have become ‘enablers’ by choosing to ignore the warning signs long before they fester in the form of democratic backsliding.

Even though the AU launched the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) in 2003 which assesses governance performance and fragility and conflict-related issues in member states, the organisation has yet to establish mechanisms to ensure member states fully implement recommendations from peer review exercises — meant to strengthen their institutions of constitutional democracy and resolve political and social tensions.

The role of foreign powers

The third factor, which is also external, is the role of foreign powers such as France, the US, and the EU. France’s Operation Barkhane and that of the EU’s in the Sahel aimed at stamping out violent extremists has not significantly shifted the war dynamic in favour of the host countries – nearly a decade later.

This has in part resulted in Mali’s decision to seek help from Russian mercenaries. Similarly, the shift in US grand strategy in the Sahel region from counterterrorism, to laying emphasis on states’ capacity building has fallen short of being successful, as evidenced by the recent spate of coups. These foreign powers are also guilty of fostering business as usual with autocratic regimes across the continent, thereby depicting a double standard that serves towards contributing to democratic backwardness in certain instances.

Bottom line

Given these realities, we should not be surprised at the news of additional military takeovers on the continent. As developments in Guinea Bissau showed early in February, soldiers in other countries are now likely to feel emboldened to ‘remake’ politics and ‘safeguard’ their countries.

Two more countries in West Africa, Benin and Côte d’Ivoire, are showing symptoms of the political breakdown and decay that ultimately led to these recent coups.

Both countries are currently under incumbent power-grabbing presidents, who are increasingly becoming unpopular domestically, yet continue to enjoy recognition and political legitimacy from ECOWAS, the AU and other foreign powers.

In the case of Benin, President Patrice Talon jailed or forced his main contenders to flee the country prior to the country’s last general elections.

This forced the main opposition parties to boycott the election leaving Talon to face weak and little-known opponents – he subsequently ‘won’ a whopping majority of 86% of the vote.

Despite his efforts to derail his country’s democratic progress, both the AU and ECOWAS failed to act. Seven months after his re-election in April, President Talon was also hosted in France, by President Emmanuel Macron. These moves provided an external endorsement for Talon’s re-election, but locally they have created more resentment for foreign governments and regional organizations among the citizenry, as the latter continues to see the former as enablers.

Whether these will be done is subject to several things, not least the capacity and authority of these organisations themselves. In the meantime, Africa should brace up for the next round of coups in this new wave that may not be dissipating anytime soon.

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